DUHOK—“My child is clever, she loved her school,” says Fryal Muhammad, a protective arm around the shoulders of 10-year-old Nour.
Nour was a star pupil back home in Qamishli, in northeastern Syria. Now, like many others who fled the Turkish military incursion on October 9, Muhammad is worried about their future.
“Our house was destroyed by a bomb. I was in the back yard and my arm was injured but my daughter wasn’t hurt,” she said. Terrified, the family left, joining thousands of people crowding into trucks and heading for the border. They are now living in Bardarash, a refugee camp near the Kurdish city of Duhok in northern Iraq.
“We’re safe but I want to know about schools for my daughter,” said Muhammad, whose husband is ill, leaving only her to look out for their daughter. “Our situation in the camp is difficult. We ran away from the war and now we’re here and her future is not guaranteed.”
Months Out of School
Rows of tents gleam bright white at Bardarash, which looks stark against the muddy landscape. Initially set up for displaced Iraqis, the camp was called into emergency use when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched a continuing offensive to seize control of land in northeastern Syria from the Kurdish-led YPG militia, which Ankara views as part of a terrorist group that it has been battling for decades in Turkey.
Bardarash soon swelled to capacity as more than 17,000 Syrian Kurds fled the violence. In recent weeks, some have returned to Syria, but many say it’s too dangerous to go back and hope to rebuild their lives in Iraq or abroad.
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For parents, this means getting their children back into education as quickly as possible. Students have lost almost three months of school and relief organizations say it may be months before they can resume classes. In the meantime, temporary learning centers in the camps offer numeracy and literacy lessons as well as sports and recreation activities, but these are no substitute for formal education.
Accessing funds for education programming has been a consistent challenge in Iraq, including for the Syrian refugee response,” said Alexandra Saieh, an advocacy manager with the Norwegian Refugee Council, which is setting up temporary learning centers in Bardarash and Gawilan, another refugee camp in northern Iraq. “Though families affected by conflict often identify education as a priority, it’s not always prioritized by donors in an emergency response.” (See a related article, “Iraq’s Education Crisis: 2.5 Million Children Are at Risk, Group Warns.”)
“Accessing funds for education programming has been a consistent challenge in Iraq, including for the Syrian refugee response.”Alexandra Saieh
An advocacy manager with the Norwegian Refugee Council
More than 80,000 Syrian refugees across the semiautonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq are of school age, including 4,000 in Bardarash camp.
“My daughter is in sixth grade and she’s in with others studying numbers and letters, which she’s already done,” said Rojin Mohamed Ali Khan. Despite the daily deprivations of life in the camp, schooling for her seven children is a primary concern. “All this time being out of school—the rest of this year is already gone for them.”
Her eldest daughter, Nafisa, a shy 12-year-old, is bored of having nothing to do. “I was a top student in my class and I want to go back,” Nafisa said. “I miss my friends.”
Harsh Conditions in the Camps
Life is getting harder as winter begins. Temperatures are plummeting and small gas heaters do little to ward off the biting cold. Tents are erected on raised concrete slabs but it’s not enough to protect against flooding as the rainy season sets in. Food and warm clothes are in short supply and parents say they struggle to keep children warm at night.
“These people ran away from Syria without anything,” said Vian Ahmed, regional program manager at the Lotus Flower, a British nongovernmental organization operating in Iraqi Kurdistan. “The attack from Turkish military forces was unexpected, so they were not prepared to be living in tents within the space of a day,” she said.
The first school in Bardaresh is weeks away from completion but there are other hurdles keeping these children out of the classroom. Many families left in a hurry and lack the necessary documentation to enroll their children in schools run by the Kurdish regional government, which are already overstretched and operating multiple shifts. Qualified teachers are in short supply and classrooms often lack sufficient learning materials.
Syrian children may also face language barriers and difficulties adapting to a different curriculum. “This adds an additional layer of complexity” in integrating them into the Kurdish region’s schools, Saieh said.
Trying to Create a Sense of Hope
Roken Kashem Abd Alrahman, a 23-year-old who is living in the camp with her 16-year-old brother, attended a teacher training session provided by the Norwegian Refugee Council.
“I wanted to help my community because we all have the same pain,” she said. Abd Alrahman had teaching experience in Syria but picked up tips on dealing with traumatized children in the workshop.
“Before the attacks these kids were having a safe life,” she said, “but afterwards they really need to be treated differently. For example, even though everything is different, and they see that the school is just a tent, we will try to create a sense of hope, because without this it’s hard to live.”
In recent weeks, Erdogan began moving some of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees who have been living in Turkey into the buffer area carved out by the military incursion. Most of the refugees in Turkey are Sunni Arabs from western Syria rather than Kurds, who were a majority in northeastern Syria.
“Before the attacks these kids were having a safe life, but afterwards they really need to be treated differently.”Roken Kashem Abd Alrahman
A 23-year-old teacher who is living in the camp
Human Rights Watch has accused Turkish-backed troops of carrying out human rights abuses in the buffer zone. “Contrary to Turkey’s narrative that their operation will establish a safe zone, the groups they are using to administer the territory are themselves committing abuses against civilians and discriminating on ethnic grounds,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
Vian Ahmed, whose organization works closely with displaced Kurdish communities in the camps, said many of the refugees who fled northeastern Syria worry that their homes and lands will be given to Syrians from Sunni communities.
“I spoke to a girl who showed me her pictures from university,” said Ahmed. “They have left everything and they don’t know what will happen or who will be controlling their areas and whether they will be able to go to schools and universities again. They fear for their future.”